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Matter of Interest: Pill Testing

30 November 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise to speak on the matter of pill testing. I travelled to the ACT back in October to visit Australia's first fixed-site pill testing service. The CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service was initiated by the Labor-Greens government in the ACT as a six-month pilot. Drug testing and pill testing have long been seen as harm minimisation approaches. Supported by the South Australian Network of Drug and Alcohol Services and their interstate counterparts, drug checking services can prevent immediate harm, increase education and awareness and alert authorities to new substances.

Harm reduction has also been acknowledged at a federal level as a key component of the National Drug Strategy. According to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 3.1 million Australians had used illicit drugs at some point in their lives. Shifting to a health-based approach meets the reality that many in our community are already using drugs. This is not about trying to condone the use of illicit substances but it is recognising that people are already using these substances and we need to do what we can to save lives.

The Greens believe that harm minimisation is the most appropriate way to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug and substance abuse. Drug testing and pill testing is used in over 20 countries across Europe, the Americas and New Zealand. It has been used as part of a harm reduction strategy for over five decades. Consecutive studies have also revealed widespread support for pill testing in the community. In 2019, 57 per cent of Australians supported pill testing but only 27 per cent were revealed to be directly opposed, according to opinion polls.

Drug testing is supported by a range of public health organisations, including the Public Health Association, the Australian Medical Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. I know that the conservative media often try to paint pill testing as some sort of radical concept, but I would hardly describe the AMA as a radical left-wing organisation.

At the CanTEST site I visited in the ACT, people can access the service between 10am and 1pm on Thursdays and 6pm and 9pm on Fridays. It is a free, confidential service. No ID is required, and all data is de-identified. Service users feel safe being anonymous, and they can seek advice in a non-threatening way. I must say I was really impressed with the level of service that is provided. It is an STI testing clinic as well, so someone can get themselves tested for STIs as well as ensure that any substances they have in their possession are tested.

They are also advised at this service that it is not safe to take any illicit substances. They are discouraged from doing so, and they are encouraged to think about a plan around what they might do if they are taking these substances. It is certainly not the case that, if a substance is tested and is confirmed to be what the visitor considers it to be, they are just told, 'Go on, have a great night. Off you go.' That is not the focus of this service.

The CanTEST trial has produced some really interesting results. In the six-month trial, they have tested 232 samples and provided 294 alcohol and other drug interventions. Of those who visited, 17 per cent chose to voluntarily discard their samples after the testing showed that there was already a minimisation of the risk of harm.

Some of the samples were found to be less pure than the client expected, and some of the substances contained none of the anticipated ingredients. One supposed sample of methamphetamine was found to contain no methamphetamine and only sugar, while a sample of cocaine was found to contain only methamphetamine. Purity of cocaine and heroin was between 5 per cent and 71 per cent in the samples tested at the site. Much of the MDMA contained caffeine, and 20 per cent of the MDMA samples were not even MDMA at all.

The statistics tell us a few important stories. Firstly, harm minimisation is already taking place as clients of the service were already surrendering their samples after testing. Secondly, people's expectations of their substances did not always match their samples. Finally, the data revealed that this is a really valuable service for health professionals and law enforcement agencies. By understanding what drugs are available on the market, we can better create strategies for managing and minimising risk to individuals and the community. I encourage the government to consider the trial and take action.